Every year, it seems, some good movies suffer from what I call Awards Season Backlash. Because the season started earlier than usual this year—and intensified when the New York Film Critics decided to vote right after Thanksgiving—the bounce-back has already begun, I’m sorry to say.
For instance, I’m very fond of The Artist, but I saw it several months ago, having heard just a little about it from friends who attended the Cannes Film Festival. I avoided reading reviews or learning too much about the picture, so I was able to form my own opinion of it…and I enjoyed it very much. (Watching it for a second time a few weeks ago, with my class at USC, I focused less on the story than on the craftsmanship of the piece: the production design, location work, camera placement and editing are simply flawless. They provide the perfect showcase for Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo’s winning performances.)
Since then, I’ve spoken to several film-buff friends who came away from the film feeling disappointed. I can understand why: at this point it’s been praised to the skies, and people—especially old-movie aficionados—are going to see it with outsized expectations. The Artist isn’t the Second Coming, or a reinvention of silent-film techniques: it’s a charming story that successfully emulates the look and feel of the late 1920s. I don’t think filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius has any pretensions about his work: he just wanted to make an entertaining movie that paid homage to the silent era.
In the same vein, I’ve talked to other savvy moviegoers who haven’t been won over by Hugo and The Descendants. They’re perfectly entitled to their opinions, but I fear they have gone to see these films all too aware of the awards and lavish praise they’ve received.
I’m told that Harvey Weinstein, who acquired The Artist this spring, understands that this French import works best if an audience feels as if they’ve “discovered” it. That’s a smart evaluation of the film’s appeal, but it’s also tough to maintain, especially during awards season.
Even I have fallen victim to this disease. I missed Steve McQueen’s Shame at the Telluride Film Festival, and because of juggling deadlines I wasn’t able to see it in time to write a review for its opening day. I almost never watch trailers and try not to read reviews before I see a film, but I couldn’t avoid the advertising that repeatedly hailed it as “brilliant.” I’m afraid I may have adopted a show-me attitude toward the film when I finally got to see it this weekend. I do admire Michael Fassbender’s extraordinary performance, and McQueen’s bold approach to the challenging subject of a man undone by his addiction to sex. But I feel the film’s deliberate absence of backstory or context presents its story in a vacuum. Not only does it give us no understanding of its central character (or his equally troubled sister, well played by Carey Mulligan) but it offers us nothing to take away when the emotionally draining drama is over. What have we learned? What insights can we bring to our judgment of people who suffer from obsessive behavior?
Perhaps, if I’d seen Shame when it was unveiled at Cannes or Telluride, I would have been so overtaken by the shock value of its subject matter, and McQueen’s unblinking treatment of it—or knocked out by the virtuosity of Fassbender’s fearless performance—to overlook those shortcomings. But this weekend, fully expecting to see a masterpiece, I was—yes—slightly disappointed. This can happen any time of year, but the problem becomes acute, if not rampant, during year-end awards season, and that’s a shame.